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Walton’s letters

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

In Frankenstein, Walton’s letters frame the narrative and
therefore colour the reader’s interpretation of the text.
Letters 1-4 are useful for considering Walton’s role in the
story, and his significance in terms of wider concepts
(such as the Gothic over-reacher, the doppelganger and

After you have read the letters, answer the following questions.

Letter 1

1. Why do you think Robert Walton chooses to write his first letter to his sister?

2. What are the connotations of St. Petersburgh as the location from which
Walton writes?

3. What is the significance of Walton’s sister’s ‘evil forebodings’ about his


4. How does Walton’s description of the weather link with Frankenstein’s

experience in the Alps (specifically when he meets the monster on the

5. What is the significance of the phrase ‘[I] may tread a land never before
imprinted by the foot of man’? Think particularly of Frankenstein’s

6. Walton compares his emotions at the start of his voyage to the ‘joy a child
feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an
expedition of discovery up his native river’. On reflection, do you think this is
an apt comparison?

7. Why do you think Walton includes so many celestial references in his letter
(such as ‘sun’, ‘heavenly bodies’, ‘a thousand celestial observations’ and

8. Why do you think Walton went against his ‘father’s dying injunction’ to
‘embark in a seafaring life’? How does this link with Frankenstein’s actions
and choices?

9. Why does Walton reference Homer and Shakespeare? What does this show
about his character? What message might Shelley be trying to convey?

10. Why do you think Shelley made Walton’s plans for hiring a ship so vague in
the final paragraph of Letter 1?

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Walton’s letters
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Letter 2

1. Why do you think Walton confesses to his sister, Margaret, that he has ‘no
friend’? How does this compare with Frankenstein’s presentation of his own
isolation? Is there a link?

2. Walton is ‘self-educated’; Frankenstein had the finest European education

money could buy. Why do you think Shelley made this difference?

3. Why do you think Walton says he needs ‘a friend who would have sense
enough not to despise [him] as romantic, and affection enough for [him] to
endeavour to regulate [his] mind’?

4. Why do you think Walton is so complimentary of his shipmates?

5. Why do you think Walton tells the story of the ‘young Russian lady’?

6. Why does Shelley have Walton describe his resolution as ‘fixed as fate’?

7. Why do you think ‘the weather’ delays Walton’s voyage?

8. Why does Shelley employ quotations from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
at this point – before Walton’s voyage has commenced?

9. What is the significance of the quotation, ‘There is something at work in my

soul which I do not understand’?

10. Why is Walton so eager for his sister to write to him, even if he may not
receive the letters? Does this link in any way with Frankenstein and his
relationship with his (larger) family?

Letter 3

1. Letter 3 is very short compared to the other letters. Walton has just started
his voyage. Why do you think Shelley made this structural choice?

2. Why do you think Walton seems positive and optimistic about his voyage in
the opening paragraph?

3. Why does Shelley have Walton write ‘I will be cool, persevering, and
prudent’? How does this link with Frankenstein’s actions?

4. Do you see any significance in the passage ‘But success SHALL crown my
endeavours. Wherefore not?’ What is ‘success’? Is Walton successful? Is
Frankenstein successful?

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Walton’s letters
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Letter 4

Part 1
1. Why do you think Walton prefaces his letter by describing the meeting with
Frankenstein as an ‘accident’?

2. Why do you think Shelley makes Walton’s ship become encased in ice? What
might her wider message be about nature and man?

3. Look at the use of the word ‘groaned’ and find it in ‘The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner’. What might the significance of this intertextual reference be?

4. What is the effect of Walton describing the gradual appearance of the monster,
the dogs and sledge and Frankenstein, over the ice?

5. Why might Walton ‘remov[e] [Frankenstein] to [his] own cabin’?

6. What is the significance of Walton’s words ‘I never saw a more interesting


7. What is the significance of Frankenstein’s words to Walton, ‘you have

benevolently restored me to life’? How does this link with Frankenstein’s story?

8. Why might Walton end this portion of the letter with ‘I begin to love him as a
brother … the brother of my heart’?

Part 2
1. Why do you think Walton describes his emotions towards Frankenstein as
combining ‘affection,’ ‘admiration’ and ‘pity’ at this stage?

2. Why might Frankenstein enter ‘attentively into all [Walton’s] argument in

favour of [his] eventual success’?

3. What kind of relationship is suggested by Walton’s phrases ‘the language of my

heart,’ ‘the burning ardour of my soul’ and ‘all the fervour that warmed me’?

4. Walton’s sentence ‘One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for
the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should
acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race’ is most interesting –
why? How does it relate to Frankenstein’s story? What might Shelley’s message

5. Consider question 4 again in the light of Frankenstein’s subsequent utterance:

‘Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the
intoxicating draught? Hear me; let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup
from your lips!’

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Walton’s letters
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

6. Why do you think Shelley presents Frankenstein’s emotions as so extreme in this

passage (for example, ‘paroxysm of grief,’ ‘the violence of his feelings,’ ‘the
slave of passion’)?

7. Frankenstein ‘once had a friend [Clerval]’ and now has another – Walton. Why
do you think Shelley replaces the dead friend with another? How are Clerval and
Walton different?

8. Walton writes: ‘Such a man [Frankenstein] has a double existence: he may

suffer misery and be overwhelmed by disappointments, yet when he has retired
into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit that has a halo around him, within
whose circle no grief or folly ventures.’ What do you think of Walton’s
idolisation of Frankenstein?

9. Walton’s phrase ‘this divine wanderer’ has both religious and literary
connotations (Melmoth the Wanderer). Research Melmoth the Wanderer and
consider its relevance. NB It is essential to note that this novel was published in
1820 – two years after the first edition of Frankenstein – so Shelley and Maturin
were near-contemporaries, exploring similar ideas independently.

10. In the final paragraph, how reliable is Walton’s judgement of Frankenstein?

Part 3
1. Why do you think Shelley split the final letter in the first set into three parts?

2. Why do you think Walton refers to Frankenstein as ‘the stranger’?

3. Why might Frankenstein use the image of ‘a serpent’ to describe Walton’s

desire to gain knowledge?

4. Why might Shelley have put Walton and Frankenstein on what is called ‘the
same course’?

5. The two men are not currently ‘among the tamer scenes of nature’ but in ‘wild
and mysterious regions’. How does this affect the telling and the apparent
veracity of Frankenstein’s tale?

6. Frankenstein sees his end as ‘fate[d]’, in contrast to Walton’s. Why might this

7. Letter 4 closes with Walton explaining how he will ‘make notes’ during
Frankenstein’s narrative. Why do you think Shelley makes Walton the trustee of
Frankenstein’s words? Given the previous letters, can we trust Walton as a

8. Finally, why might Walton conclude Letter 4 by comparing Frankenstein to a

‘gallant vessel’ which has been ‘wrecked’?

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